The first thing I noticed when I arrived at the 88rising’s Head in the Clouds festival was the sheer number of diverse people who were present. While many of them were of eastern descent, which makes sense considering the fact 88rising is a primarily eastern-based label, it was just so interesting seeing how true they stayed to their core demographic. That’s not to say that I felt alienated in any way, in fact, the entire atmosphere was astonishingly welcoming. I just think this is the precedent 88rising is trying to set with their emphasis on Asian culture and well, they certainly hit the mark. Regardless of your decent, the festival was a safe space created to bridge the gap between the east and west, welcome to everyone.
The complete festival took up about half of the LA State Historic Park; an area that spans around 32 acres in its entirety. Needless to say, it was a big event that caught the eye of more than its festival-goers. What’s more, is the abundance of things you could actually do once inside.
The first thing I did was stop by the concert merch store which was the attraction that garnered the longest line by far. I’ll spare you the gory details of that venture, but let’s just say I waited 2 hours to spend 60 dollars on one sweatshirt for the simple purpose of having a keepsake. Totally worth it. Aside from that, there were several other displays that accumulated respectable lines themselves. There was another merch booth that exclusively sold GUESS branded 88rising clothes modeled to look like a pop-up shop. Each patron also had the opportunity to go to a photo booth which would take a high-quality photo of you in front of the 88rising logo and an array of clouds, a small nod to the name of the festival.
With all of that said, it should be apparent that the main focus wasn’t necessarily placed on the musicians that performed at the festival, rather I believe the true allure was the overall experience of simply being there. I missed many of the acts the festival boasted, however that fact did not hinder my overall perception of the festival. I was still capable of hearing everyone who performed from of the distances I was at. Some of what I heard actually made me upset I hadn’t listened to some of the artists beforehand. Some of the artists like Sen Morimoto, August 08, and KOHH all had such a powerful presence on stage it was hard to keep myself from joining the crowd prematurely.
Sen Morimoto had the uncanny ability to connect with everyone in the crowd, even the people who weren’t in the immediate vicinity. He was very charismatic between tracks, chatting with the crowd and giving input on what his songs mean to him. He ended his set with a song he felt, “describes the moment you figure out what you want to do with yourself.”
August 08 followed shortly after and was easily one of the most high-energy artists that went up. By far one of the most shocking moments that occurred that evening was when he introduced fellow LA rapper DUCKWRTH as one of the mystery guests advertised on the main stage schedule. They both ended up performing a song together.
KOHH was the first artist I came to the main stage to thoroughly observe. Having never heard his music before, I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself jumping to his discography. He blurs the lines between contemporary rap music and eastern tradition. Being a primarily Japanese artist it’s rather obvious I couldn’t understand a word of what he was saying. However, that did not hinder my experience one bit and the few words I could pick up on I proudly proclaimed whilst feverishly jumping.
I stayed in the crowd after listening to KOHH and patiently awaited for NIKI to appear onstage. All around me the crowd seemed to buzz strenuously, the sun had not gone down at this point and everyone’s face was still lit naturally. I watched their smiles become wider as NIKI finally arrived onstage. She began to sing the crowd mellowed to listen to her melodically coo. It was a slow beginning but ramped up as she moved into her debut single, “See U Never.” The track itself deals with incredibly stoic and cold subject matter but NIKI juxtaposes it with her bubbly high-pitched voice. This seemed to be a common theme as that same motif carried on until the end where she finished her set with a track from her album Zephyr entitled “Friends.” It was an emotional finale to an already touching performance but what made it even more poignant was when she got choked up as she sang the chorus. She could hardly utter the word “friends” and laughed at herself apologetically. That single moment made the whole production feel worth it, it became more personal like there was a true reason to be there in the crowd that day.
Time passed and it was soon nightfall. The one thing everyone had on their minds was when Joji was going to make his star-appearance. We were already behind schedule due to the surprise appearance of Californian rapper Anderson Paak, the second of the two mystery musicians slated to perform on the main stage. At this point, the crowd was determined to see the night through as was I. As Murda Beatz exited the stage a small chant began to form calling for Joji’s name. It continued for a few moments then slowly died down and then rose up again for brief periods. Until all of a sudden, the screen went black and a small video of Joji appeared. The video was of him sitting on a couch at first. The look in his eyes was jaded until he noticed the audience before him, he leaned toward the camera and attempted to break out of the frame to which he was confined in. For a moment there it almost seemed like he would until the screen went black again. The crowd was silent, teeming with anticipation. Without skipping a beat the melodic chime of the “Will He” instrumental began to play and the crowd immediately erupted in a cathartic cheer.
Joji stepped on stage and started to sing, and as he sang so did the faces around me. Everyone was ostensibly entranced by his sonorous voice and melancholy vibes. It was as if the whole world had stopped simply to stare at what was taking place there. The crowd continued to chant until we had reached the end of the song. As we waited impatiently for the next track to start playing, Joji took time to thank the audience for showing up that night and spending their day at the festival. Then without any further delay, we were already onto the next track “Demons.” Once again the crowd began to sing along with Joji. However, during some of the pauses between lyrics, he always ad-libbing small phrases. The most comical of these being his trademark mantra, “Unblock me, bitch!” Since his inception, Joji has always been associated with brief bouts dark humor. Not just within his character but within his music as well. “Bitter Fuck” had always been a bit humorous to me, but hearing it live offered a new level of poignancy I hadn’t yet contemplated.
Joji closed his performance with his most recent single “SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK” it was the song everyone had secretly been hoping he would perform live but never knew if he would or not. To the pleasure of many, including myself, the former was the case. As Joji uttered the opening lyrics the crowd beneath him started to sway and follow along. The surrealness of the moment reached its peak as the climax of the power ballad reached its most visceral period: the chorus. And just like that, as abruptly as it started, the song faded to nothingness and all we were left with was the ambient sounds of the crowd settling. Joji thanked the audience once again for listening, and calmly exited the stage. Everyone was left wondering if they even had enough energy for Rich Brian’s upcoming performance. However, something told me we would. Suffice it to say, I wasn’t wrong.